The Last Five Years

Posted by Joel Copling on March 3, 2015

"The Last Five Years" is remarkable. That's really the first word that comes to mind after the experience of following a romantic relationship from its idealistic beginning to its inevitable end--but in opposite directions, from each party's perspective, and almost entirely through song. The film has been adapted for the screen from Jason Robert Brown's musical play by director Richard LaGravenese, who approaches each musical setpiece as constant forward motion through lives that are almost moving too fast (That the phrase, "moving too fast," is actually a title of one of the songs should be pretty telling). Editor Sabine Hoffmann expertly weaves forward and then backward through time, although the film's only notable struggle is the conveyance of five years' turmoil.

But in the face of such strengths, the passage of time in a 94-minute body is a tiny quibble. In this context, it really only translates to "It should be longer," which is a backhanded compliment; this writer could have easily gone for another hour with these characters, and as is, the fleet runtime is the only hindrance on display. Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick, luminous and lovely) and Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan, charismatic and classy) are such a worthy pair of whom to chronicle a relationship that the desire for more of them is really a statement about the strength of the material on-hand. That material could have fallen flat on its face without its ambitious structure, which imbues the thing with passion, grace, and a liberated sense of fresh storytelling.

We start at the end of Cathy and Jamie's whirlwind romance with the former lamenting its dissolution through song, and if you tire easily of the phenomenon of characters breaking into song (Why would you be, unless you are somehow inhuman?), the next scene is of the latter celebrating its foundation. From here, the film tirelessly shifts between past and present, just as the songs faultlessly shift between literal interaction between people and the subconscious of the singer's minds. This latter element is a common one in the musical genre, but it has never been so evident (or cinematic) as it is here, during a particularly humorous sequence in which Cathy auditions for a role in one of the many casting calls to which she goes.

Yes, Cathy is an aspiring actress; the film announces its theatrical ambitions from the start, in both definitions of the term "theatrical." It helps that Kendrick, whose faultless singing voice and--if I may--adorable appearance never belie an uncanny knack for getting at the heart of her character, is the one to fill the role of a seek-and-go-do type. The aforementioned sequence is one in which everything from the choice of footwear to Russell Crowe's casting in another popular musical informs her insecurities, which she sings in only loose tempo with a pianist who, she reasons, seems to hate her. Cathy's wide-eyed exterior grows more hopeful over time (Her side of the story is told in reverse, after all).

This is at odds with Jamie's arc, in which the man grows wearier over the five years. He is an author who rose to the challenge earlier than expected, a book deal with a major publishing company defining his future plans--and only months after meeting and falling hard for Cathy, to boot. The rise to celebrity--his book, she sings, is Target-endorsed underneath the "new and featured" sign--coincides with a rise in a certain type of arrogance--as Cathy's failures follow his successes, he sings, he will not remain with her if it means contributing to his failures (There is also the issue of women, who flock to Jamie as so many fangirls do). Jordan is particularly effective at conveying this shift without making Jamie a priggish caricature.

The whole thing is akin to some wakeful dream--diamond-bright filmmaking (Steven Meizler's cinematography is, on the surface of it, plain, but New York City is captured lovingly) at the service of a truly lovely romance between two people who share real chemistry, of the physical and emotional varieties. I haven't even mentioned the songs at great detail, but that's because they fit into this idyllic relationship so perfectly that they play akin to dialogue; still, they are stunners, all of them, and matched by superb vocal performances from Kendrick and Jordan (Both actors are seasoned Broadway veterans, so this should be no surprise). If one isn't moved by the end of "The Last Five Years," the existence of one's heart must be in question. I'm only mostly joking. This is a small miracle of cinema.

Film Information

Anna Kendrick (Cathy Hiatt), Jeremy Jordan (Jamie Wellerstein).

Directed and written by Richard LaGravenese, based on the musical play by Jason Robert Brown.

Rated PG-13 (sexual material, brief language, a drug image).

94 minutes.

Released in select cities on February 13.